Bill McRaven is a highly respected retired admiral and popular chancellor of the University of Texas System. But his remarks at a recent conference on national security left me doubting his intellectual and moral fitness to lead institutions of higher education.
While my lack of deference to a boss who is a decorated veteran may seem uppity, it’s important—especially for professors at highly respected public universities—to contest McRaven’s ahistorical analysis, which offers a deluded account of the past and prescribes a dangerous course for the future of U.S. foreign policy.
This statement of McRaven’s captures his main points: “In the end, we know the right strategy: It is continuous and direct action on the extremists until they have no more capacity and no more reach. It will be a generational fight. But if we don’t take it on now, then we should not be surprised when the barbarians are at the gate and we’re wondering how they got here.”
Before worrying about whether the extremists in this case, the Islamic State or ISIS, might one day be at our gate, we should reflect on how they got where they already are, in Iraq and Syria. McRaven spent no time in this talk pondering the role of barbaric levels of violence, past and present, used by U.S. military forces and our allies in the region. To assess honestly that history doesn’t justify anyone’s terrorism but simply takes seriously the task of creating the conditions for stability and peace. Anyone wanting to stop brutal attacks on innocents should want to understand the context for the violence.
To avoid that inquiry and claim that we all agree on the “right strategy” is typical of those who spout the conventional wisdom and hope to close off critique. I am a U.S. citizen and one of the professors under McRaven’s supervision—part of the “we” to which he refers, I hope—but I believe his strategy is doomed to fail, as is typically the case with imperial strategies, especially at the end of an empire’s period of dominance.
That assessment—that the United States attempts to undermine the sovereignty of other nations in pursuit of power and profit—no doubt puts me on the opposite side of the political fence from McRaven, a career military officer who long served the U.S. empire. For those opposed to U.S. imperial policies, the right strategy starts with a recognition that this longstanding bipartisan foreign policy of seeking dominance is morally indefensible, and an awareness that—whatever one’s moral evaluation—the United States no longer can project the same power it once did in regions such as the Middle East. For both principled and pragmatic reasons, U.S. leaders should abandon their arrogance and accept a role as part of the international community, seeking real diplomatic solutions rather than compounding past mistakes with more terrorist-generating military action. Instead, McRaven doubles down on imperial violence.
Although U.S. pundits and politicians like to ignore history that is inconvenient, a sensible policy in the Middle East would recognize how often our policy of undermining democratic regimes and propping up dictatorships has indeed created terrorists. We should recall that our main “enemy” in the region, Iran, suffered under the barbarism of the Shah for more than two decades, a direct result of U.S. support for his tyranny. Meanwhile our key “ally” Saudi Arabia is at the center, both intellectually and financially, of the Islamic fundamentalist political ideology that we claim to be fighting. And our wanton destruction of Iraq in 2003 created the traumatic conditions in which ISIS has flourished.
In these cases, a desire to control the flow of oil and oil profits, not humanitarian principles, dictated U.S. policy. That’s what we mean by imperialism. Throughout the post-WWII period in which the United States has dominated global politics, the United States has consistently ignored the legitimate democratic aspirations of the people of the developing world, including the Middle East, in favor of support for regimes that cooperated with U.S. planners’ goals.
ISIS doesn’t represent those legitimate aspirations, of course, but we aren’t likely to formulate a coherent strategy without an awareness of how the people of the Middle East view the United States. The success of U.S. pop culture around the world—the spread of blue jeans and hip hop music—should not be confused with support for U.S. policies. Even after the abject failures of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq—again, on both principled and pragmatic criteria—U.S. politicians and pundits seem unable to grasp that these failures were tied to the United States’ delusional dreams of dominance. The right strategy is to reverse that course and renounce the unilateralism that folks such as McRaven euphemistically refer to as “leadership.”
I’m neither a military strategist nor a diplomat. I do not pretend to have a foolproof strategy for contributing to stable democratic regimes in the Middle East, and I would doubt the sanity of anyone who at this point claimed to have a magical formula. But a good starting place is an honest accounting: The United States has failed to act in accordance with the moral principles on which we claim our government is based—the rule of law, the inherent dignity of all people, the right of self-determination—and the result has been failed policies that sacrifice people all over the world.
McRaven unintentionally acknowledged past U.S. violations of moral and legal principles during the Q&A following his prepared remarks. Defending U.S. drone strikes, McRaven claimed that they minimize civilian casualties, noting that “in the old days—you know, go back to Vietnam, Korea, World War II, any of those wars—we’d of just leveled the whole place.”
“Leveling the whole place” means indiscriminate bombing, a staple U.S. tactic not only in the wars he mentions but notably in both the 1991 invasion of Iraq and the even more brutal “shock and awe” devastation unleashed in 2003. Such attacks, which kill large numbers of civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure, are indeed war crimes, as McRaven seemed to recognize when he continued, “We don’t do that anymore because we believe in the law of armed conflict, we believe in rules of engagement, we believe in protecting civilians, for that exact reason.”
I’m not sure how McRaven squares that acknowledgment of past U.S. war crimes with his call for the United States to lead “civilized” nations in the struggle against terrorism, a task he said is made more difficult by our opponents willingness to “lie, lie, lie” about us. But whatever McRaven’s explanation, he might consider whether instead of continuing to use our military power to try to shore up our morally bankrupt empire, we should start to tell the truth and take those moral principles seriously before we repeat our mistakes once again.
The UT conference at which McRaven spoke was titled “Great Powers, Failed States, and New Frontiers: National Security Challenges in the 21st Century.” Let’s meet those challenges by admitting that the greatest of the current great powers—the United States of America—is also a failed state of sorts, both abroad where U.S. leaders are responsible for crimes against peace and war crimes, and increasingly at home where our affluent nation ignores the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.
That would be the civilized thing to do and would make possible real leadership.